Men are from 523.43, Women are from 523.42

On the way home from the NJLA conference today, my wife mentioned to me that she thought that this year’s conference had more young men than last year’s. I thought this was a strange observation since (1) it was confined to such a narrow band of crowd population and (2) what gauge was she using to measure the number from last year compared to this year. (I could toss in “why are you counting young men?” as a (3), but I think the first two get the job done objectively.) I remember writing something about gender in the NJLA Blog from last year’s conference. In looking back on that entry, it feels to me like I was more excited to contribute to the NJLA blog than I was at actually making a point that people wouldn’t simply scan over and move on the next entry. Ah, yes, it was during my rookie librarian year. I was all very new to the profession and full of optimism and ideas.

I was still full of optimism and ideas even before Karen Hyman’s keynote speech. Her speech almost compelled me to rise from my seat, get in my car, and head back to my branch to announce, “We are going to weed, redecorate, renovate, and improve staff morale today” while emphasizing each concept with a rev of a chainsaw. Perhaps it sounds a bit extreme, but my library could benefit from some new window holes, a noticeably smaller collection, and a suddenly cooperative and motivated staff. (Lest uninformed readers be shocked, it is a little known fact that the chainsaw is McGuyver’s army knife, duct tape, and chewing gum rolled up into one extremely delightful gas guzzling tool for all occasions. It is so good at solving problems that it can work by simply holding one in your hands while you talk.)

To be certain, if I had known that I would have gone into such a female dominated profession, I certainly would have tried to stay single longer than I did. (I’m sure I’ll get pinched in my sleep for that.) Sadly (that’s another pinch), I got married long before thoughts of library science danced across my mind like a tantalizing raven haired seductress (yet another pinch).

But in giving it actual serious thought, the gender imbalance is a complete non-issue for me. I wouldn’t exactly call myself progressive unless “I don’t care where the answer comes from so long as it is right” counts. When I’m reaching out to colleagues for answers to a question I can’t figure out, or share ideas for new programs or services, or to find out why my patron’s hold got sent to another branch, the gender of the person on the other end of the conversation is completely moot. I’m sure there are social scientists who could show me how different gender balance works environments perform but, honestly, unless there is some sort of earth shattering difference, it’s trivia that I would store away for the night I can shout it at the television during Jeopardy!.  It reminds me of a line by Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (played by John Amos) in the television series The West Wing when asked about having a young black man serve as the President’s body man:

I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight [...]. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.

Back to optimism and other things that spring eternal, I will say that loathsome, too oft repeated cliche that the best days of library science are still ahead. And while the phrase may be vile, the new information networks and communications are not. We stand at the frontier of complete information immersion where there are few actual limits to access and all forms of knowledge are now intertwined. For me, the future does not lay in creating a better library system, but in the empowerment of the end user. We can come up with as many features and tools as we want, we can create a big ole pile of features and tools that could be stacked end to end and reach from the Earth to the moon and back, but it will mean diddly squat if our patrons don’t know about it, don’t know how to use it, can’t figure out how to use it on their own, and/or don’t ask us about it. In my sophomore year of librarianship, I see the mission of the library is to educate and empower the patron with the access and tools to the resources they desire. Let us move from being gatekeepers to guides.

I’m sure I’ll look back in a year and snicker at my second attempt to figure out the big picture, but it’s nice set lofty goals and to have stars to reach for.

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